‘Tis the season of starry, spangled things and thus seems a good time for a post in praise of the humble starling.
Many find starlings to be a bit of a problematic bird here in North America.
Invasive, too many of them etc.
I could explain how it’s not their fault that some enthusiastic but misguided human immigrants to 1890’s New York thought it would be a great idea to try and introduce every one of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to North America by releasing them in Central Park.
Also not the starlings’ fault that they proved to be by far the scrappiest and most adaptable of all the birds involved in this ill-conceived project, going on to colonize most of the continent and reaching their current population of more than 200 million.
But, you know (as one of my favourite authors, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, noted in her book Crow Planet) we humans do end up with the birds we deserve. Often we end up with much more than we really deserve, in fact.
People have been a lot more invasive and destructive than any bird, and as we continually modify the landscape for our own purposes we crowd out a lot of the more sensitive and specialist birds, leaving more room for the opportunist and generalist starlings.
And crows, of course.
While we mourn the decline of many native birds and do our best to lobby for the maintenance and restoration of their habitat, we can also keep our spirits up by enjoying the rabble rousing birds we do see every day.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt also wrote about starlings.
Her book Mozart’s Starling is about the bond between the composer and his pet/muse starling; about Carmen, Lyanda’s rescue starling and much loved family member; about the incredible personality and vocal complexity of the starling; and (a theme running through all her books) about wonder …
“But the earth and its beings are extravagantly wild, full of unexpected wonders. It is time to turn from our textbooks and listen to the birds themselves.”
― Mozart’s Starling
So let’s have a look at the joy to be found in these starry, fizzy birds.
As always, poet Mary Oliver says it perfectly …
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
— “Starlings in Winter” by Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
While many think of starlings as rather drab brown or black birds, their colours are actually among the most spectacular of our local birds — once you see them in the right light.
Indigo, aquamarine, periwinkle, lavender and midnight are all there, tipped with stars of white and pale ochre, all shifting and threatening to vanish as the bird moves in and out of shadow.
As with crows, you can almost always spot an anonymous starling somewhere in the landscape — looking reasonably poetic for a “pest.”
Often, you can see hundreds of them at once …
Visitors to the Burnaby crow roost at Still Creek will notice that the thousands of crow visitors have now been joined by a large starling contingent.We don’t seem to get quite the volume of starlings necessary for the breath-taking murmurations I’ve only seen in videos.
The changing shape of starling flocks comes from each bird copying the motions of the six or seven others around it with extreme rapidity: Their reaction time is less than a tenth of a second. Turns can propagate through a cloud of birds at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, making murmurations look from a distance like a single pulsing, living organism.
— Helen MacDonald, The Human Flock
Now, zooming back in from the thousands of starlings to one particular bird …
This focus switch from the the anonymous flock to the individual bird takes me back to Helen MacDonald’s essay in which she reminds us that even what looks like “a single pulsing, living organism” is also, miraculously, made up of many individuals, each with their own story.
“in the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety”.
Helen MacDonald, from The Human Flock (an essay for the New York Times)
This post is for my friend, Debbie — a lover of many birds, but especially the effervescent starling.